Gophers

Another Year Gives Gophers’ Passing Game A Lift

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(credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images)

(credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images)

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Another year has given MarQueis Gray and the Gophers more confidence about their quarterback situation.

The addition of two acclaimed recruits makes the depth chart look stronger, too.

Gray’s first season as Minnesota’sstarter after switching back from wide receiver was a long struggle to grasp the offense and get comfortable with being the leader in the huddle. Max Shortell showed some early flashes of skill, but he was still an inexperienced backup who endured his own freshman-year challenges with Big Ten defenses.

The Gophers completed less than half of their passes and were second-to-last in the conference with 150.3 yards per game. Now Gray is one year older and wiser, poised to finish an up-and-down career on a positive note. Shortell is more polished, and he’s not even guaranteed to be the second-stringer. Two early-enrolled freshmen, Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner, have joined the team for spring practice.

“You never have enough guys who can play that position in this game,” head coach Jerry Kill said after Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage.

The passing game looked like it still needs a lot of work, though Gray and Kill quickly noted the division of the roster into two squads disrupted quarterback-receiver timing and the game plan was intentionally basic. Gray was 4 for 8 for 62 yards and Shortell went 4 for 10 for 68 yards for the Maroon team. Neither Nelson, from Mankato West High School, nor Leidner, from Lakeville South, completed a pass in a combined eight attempts for the Gold team, which comprised mostly second-stringers on the offensive line and on defense. But spring game statistics are hardly relevant.

“Guys were out there just having fun, letting the younger guys play, just showing the coaches what we accomplished all spring,” Gray said.

Shortell said his spring goal was to improve his mobility and speed, and he showed some of that, gaining 30 yards on four runs. He said he’s not concerned about the ramped-up competition at his position.

“Coaches always try to out-recruit what they’ve got, and they should. It’s up to me to get better every year,” Shortell said.

Brandon Green’s 35-yard reception from Gray was arguably the only real highlight of the game, officially won 3-0 by the Maroon guys, but he did fumble before he was brought down even though his team got to keep the ball. Kill said he would’ve liked to see another receiver “make a play or two,” but more important of course will be how the group progresses over the summer and into the fall. Green and Malcolm Moulton are the only two returners who had more than 10 catches last season.

“Somebody will have to step up who’s got speed and who can go get a ball,” Kill said. “I think we all knew that when we were recruiting.”

Green, Moulton, Devin Crawford-Tufts and Marcus Jones will be the first ones to get that opportunity. Junior college transfer Isaac Fruechte, by way of Caledonia High School, is one name that stands out among the other candidates.

“The opposing defense knows that I can run the ball and is going to try to load the box,” Gray said. “It’s my job to be able to put the ball out there to the receivers and for the receivers to go up and get it.”

The university said 3,512 people were in attendance on this cool, rainy day. The staff wanted more of a game-like situation than last year, so they scattered to opposite sidelines and even conducted a coin toss, after which Kill grabbed a microphone and said to the stadium, “Somebody’s going to be a winner today.”

The fans didn’t see much action, though, during two 25-minute running-time halves. Another 10 minutes was added at the end, but they only used half of it before calling it a day and heading to the concourse to sign autographs. The quarterbacks were off-limits for the defense, so a simple touch counted as a tackle. Otherwise, Shortell would’ve had a 4-yard touchdown run at the beginning of the second half to cap a drive sparked by his 33-yard completion to Moulton. Chris Hawthorne’s 21-yard field goal was the only points, giving the Maroon team the margin it needed for the sought-after postgame treat.

“Steak or pork chops,” Green said.

Was a three-point win truly enough for bragging rights?

“The other team would probably say it’s not, but we’re eating steak tonight and they’re eating beans,” Green said.

Really? That was a legitimate promise from Kill and not a joke or a metaphor?

“I hope so. It should be. It better be. We scored, so,” Gray said.

The fun was therapeutic, too. A brief tribute video to Gary Tinsley, the senior linebacker on last season’s team who was found dead two weeks ago in his apartment, was shown before the game.

“None of us understand really what the kids have gone through,” Kill said.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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